EU project claims Google and Facebook have too much power over our data

A report published today calls on governments to stem the monopoly tech companies have over citizen data.

EU project claims Google and Facebook have too much power over our data

DECODE is part of the EU’s flagship Horizon 2020 initiative, which is aimed at securing Europe’s global competitiveness. The report argues that a shift from siloed data access to a more inclusive digital economy is in the interest of cities across the world, and that the control companies such as Google and Facebook currently have over data is stifling fair social and economic innovation.

“There need to be new models of governance that move beyond simply trusting major internet providers to share our data for public good when and how they see fit,” the report reads.

To show the potential for an alternative system, DECODE (which stands for DEcentralised Citizen-owned Data Ecosystems) plans to run four pilot projects across Amsterdam and Barcelona between 2017 and 2019.

In Barcelona, there will be a new partnership with Barcelona City Council and the city’s digital democracy platform Decidim.Barcelona, to allow data streams, including healthcare information, to be aggregated and displayed on an interactive dashboard. In a connected pilot, locals will be given noise sensors so they can contribute their own source of citizen-led data about noise pollution, and in turn influence city-level decisions.

In Amsterdam, the city will expand the Gebiedonline (Neighbourhood Online) platform, which lets locals share news, arrange meet-ups and exchange products and services. Another pilot, which similarly takes aim at the hegemony of big internet companies, is called Fairbnb, and seeks to develop a sustainable solution to short-let accommodation. Involving the Amsterdam municipality, the Fairbnb project wants to combat the rent hikes caused by Airbnb with a service that funnels profits back into local initiatives.

“Today, citizens have little say in how their data is gathered or used,” said Francesca Bria, DECODE co-ordinator and chief technology and digital innovation officer for Institut Municipal d’Informatica de Barcelona. “Data is accumulated in the hands of few online platforms that profit from its value, helping them to secure control over the digital economy.

“Immense power has been shifted to just one sector of society as a result. We need a new social pact on data, to make the most out of data for the public good, while guaranteeing privacy and information self-determination for citizens.”

The report comes ahead of the introduction of tighter EU internet rules, in the form of May 2018’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – the result of four years’ work by the EU to bring data-protection legislation into line with new, previously unforeseen ways data is used. Led by Barcelona’s technology and innovation office with partners across Europe, including NESTA and UCL in the UK, DECODE thinks the GDPR, coupled with rising unease around the powers of tech companies, means the time is ripe for alternatives in which citizens have greater power over their own data.

Will it work? DECODE is optimistic, and there have been strong calls in recent months for greater regulation of tech companies – even raising the potential to nationalise big companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon. Whether or not that translates to large-scale structural shifts remains to be seen. In terms of smaller, city-level initiatives, Barcelona has set a compelling precedent.

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